Fifty years ago, the nursery and pre-school educational television programme ‘Sesame Street’ was first aired on public broadcasting television stations on November 10th, 1969. Sesame Street is an American educational children's television series that combines live action, sketch comedy, animation and puppetry.
Featuring legendary American puppeteer Jim Henson's Muppets, animation, live shorts, humour and celebrity appearances, it was the first television programme of its kind to base its content and production values on laboratory and formative research, and the first to include a curriculum that was "detailed or stated in terms of measurable outcomes.”
The first episode of ‘Sesame Street’, sponsored by the letters W, S and E and the numbers 2 and 3, aired in the autumn of 1969. It was a turbulent time in the United States, rocked by the Vietnam War and raw from the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King the previous year.
On the occasion of the show's 50th birthday in 2019, Sesame Street has produced over 4,500 episodes, 35 TV specials, 200 home videos, and 180 albums. Its YouTube channel has almost 5 million subscribers. It was announced in October 2019 that first-run episodes will move to HBO Max beginning with its 51st season in 2020.
‘Sesame Street’ creators Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, worked with Harvard University developmental psychologist Gerald Lesser to build the show's unique approach to teaching that now reaches 120 million children worldwide.
Steve Youngwood, the chief operating officer of Sesame Workshop, said: "It wasn't about if kids were learning from television, it was about what they were learning from television. If they could harness that power to teach them the alphabet and their numbers as opposed to the words to beer commercials, you may be able to make a really big difference."
Children's programming at the time was mostly teaching social skills, like ‘Captain Kangaroo’, ‘Romper Room’ and the violent skirmishes between ‘Tom & Jerry’ and ‘Mr Rogers' Neighbourhood’.
Phillip Levine, a professor of economics at Wellesley College who has studied the show, stated “‘Sesame Street' was 100% about education."
Designed by education professionals and child psychologists, the show was aiming to help low-income and minority students aged 2-5, overcome some of the deficiencies they had when entering school as social scientists had long noted white and higher income kids were often better prepared.
In addition; the show was set on an urban street with a multicultural cast. Diversity and inclusion were embedded in the show. Monsters, humans and animals all lived together peacefully.
‘Sesame Street’ became the first children's programme to feature someone with Down’s Syndrome. It had puppets with HIV and in foster care, it invited children in wheelchairs, dealt with topics like jailed parents, homelessness, women's rights, and military families.
It introduced the bilingual Rosita, the first Latina Muppet, in 1991 and the 4-year-old autistic Muppet, Julia in 2017.
This year has offered help for kids whose parents are dealing with addiction and recovery. Recently the show asked for the creation of a vegan Muppet.
"We are a mirror to society here even though we're dealing with birds and chickens and monsters," said Matt Vogel, the puppeteer who portrays Big Bird and the Count and who grew up watching ‘Sesame Street’.
Music has always been a big part of the show and its song ‘Rubber Duckie’ peaked at number 16 on the Billboard charts in 1970. ‘Sing’, which premiered on the show, went even higher, hitting number 3 on Billboard in 1973.
Before each season, educators and creators gather to align the curriculum with the latest thinking. Sesame Workshop has also pared down episodes from an hour to 30 minutes, and the show is now shot on 4K, with the creators knowing that most children are watching on tablets or phones.
Celebrity appearances, starting with beloved entertainer Carol Burnett and now numbering 650 – are not just a fun component of the show, they are part of the lesson. In 2012, Big Bird found himself unexpectedly in the presidential race when Mitt Romney said he would defund public broadcasting if elected. "I love Big Bird," then-President Barack Obama retorted.
In 2002, Sesame Street was ranked number 27 on TV Guide's 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time. In 2013, TV Guide ranked the show number 30 on its list of the 60 best TV series.
As of 2018, Sesame Street has received 189 Emmy Awards, more than any other television series and the show was given Peabody's Institutional Award in 2019 for 50 years of educating and entertaining children globally.
The show is still going strong despite an explosion of cheap online alternatives with bright colours and songs, like ‘Baby Shark’, all competing for the eyes of the under-fives.